Terriers are zesty little predators who closely attend to their environment. Is it a critter? Can I chase it? SOMETHING MOVED!
This can easily turn into reactivity if the dog develops a pattern of over-responding to minor stimuli. Ava was doing just that: barking from our deck at people walking by, barking in the backyard when the neighbor dog barked from his deck, etc. This is pretty normal for adolescent dogs but it’s not a good habit. To change it I decided to try strict classical counterconditioning.
How does CC work?
- Here comes a [thing you don’t like that elicits a negative emotional response].
- The instant you see that thing I’ll give you this [thing you love that elicits a positive emotional response].
- Do this a gazillion times until the dog goes, “ooh, thing! I love thing!”
In counterconditioning it doesn’t matter what your dog is actually doing; the only thing that matters is associating the negative conditioned stimulus to something she loves. I see [thing] and I feel happy because [thing] means COOKIES!
So I tried it! After a few weeks we noticed that Ava barks and then immediately turns to us for a cookie. She also goes bonkers in the backyard even when that dog isn’t on his deck. Hmmmmm. I think something went wrong.
I found this video from Dr. Patricia McConnell where she speaks about treating dog-dog reactivity. She mentions that nearly all counterconditioning methods have these things in common: increase distance between dogs, decrease direct approaches, eliminate eye contact, and reinforce appropriate behavior. I would add that management (e.g. barriers) is also important so the dog can’t practice the undesired behavior in your absence.
I wasn’t consistently doing any of those things, which is especially embarrassing since I’m pretty proficient at BAT and have owned a reactive dog. *shaking my head* I also had poor timing and ended up positively reinforcing the undesired behavior. Oops.
I wanted to beat myself up about this but then I thought, what makes people good trainers? They recognize their mistakes and fix them. That’s what I’m doing right now. We’re going to intensely work on the issue using BAT until it’s no longer an issue, and I’ll keep learning.